We will be discussing ethics in feature writing in class today. Here are some links we’ll be using.
Here is he Janet Cooke story that won her a Pulitzer Prize until it was revealed the story was a fabrication. She acknowledged she never interviewed any of the people in the story and that she made it up based on composite information she had gleaned from other sources. Cooke sort of explained on the Phil Donahue show why she lied.
We will be discussing this story in the context of the ethical decisions that reporters make at every turn that lead to true and accurate reporting or breaches. It is important to remember that no one sets out to be unethical. These lapses start as a series of misplaced choices, much as one small lie may lead to larger untruths.
Be thinking about what small ethical lapses you may make that could lead to bigger gaps.
Ethics is also about journalists’ decision to be impartial or stay out of the lives of subjects. When should a journalist step in?
At school here, everyone in the Mass Communications and Journalism department is required to take a class called Media Law and Ethics. It is supposed to give us a background about the way courts work and basic mass media law like copyright and libel. Of course this is just a basic class, so we can’t learn absolutely everything there is to know in the field.
Having this reading really opened my eyes to what could be considered unethical writing. As journalists we are told not to put a bias in our writing, even for feature writing. We can elaborate a bit more and really paint a scene, but we can’t show any particular bias in what we say. However, a lot of things can actually cause a bias.
Choosing to include this quote over this quote, keeping this source in the story but not using this one, and even using some sources can lead to some unreliable reporting. Memories aren’t crystal clear, so a source could be lying or exaggerating certain events without even realizing it. It might just be how they remember things happening.
Even journalistic attribution isn’t perfect. Sure we say the name of the person and what qualifies them to comment on the subject, but that isn’t everything. If I were to write a story and use a quote from John Smith, a resident of Hattiesburg, that isn’t much help if there are five men with that name in the city. Basically, reporting isn’t perfect, and a writer has be really careful about what they do and do not include in their stories. You never know when the past can come back to get you.
Here’s the story I was talking about in class today — about President Obama visiting with some young people and a reporter capturing the moment by eavesdropping.
Give it a read. As you do so, ask yourself:
Does this work better as the writer wrote it, or would a more traditional story work better?
Why or why not?
Why doesn’t the reporter interview anyone?
Does that work?
As promised, here’s a bit of good — great — writing that you should read. We’ll be talking about it in class next week (Jan. 22). This is a first-person narrative.
As you read it, ask yourself:
- How does the writing make me feel?
- What do I see?
- What do I feel?
- What techniques does the writer use to make me feel what I feel and see what I see?
- What is the pace of the story?
- How does the writer generate that pace?
According to the syllabus, we are supposed to discuss editing today in class. For my blog post, I thought I would focus on reading stories aloud to check for errors. When we write something, we know exactly what we want to say. Often times, this leads to us missing our mistakes that are obvious to our readers. For example, I am terrible at leaving out articles when I type on Facebook. It’s not that I’m too stupid to know where they go, it’s just that I believe I put them there and I see them in my text. However, that’s in my head, not necessarily on the screen. Reading stories aloud forces us to focus on the words and pick up on things that don’t sound right. Not only can we catch errors through this process, but we can make sure a story flows or makes sense. I like to say reading the story aloud brings us closer to being nothing more than a reader of our work. Your readers are unlikely to miss things that you would as the writer, so catching these errors ahead of time is important.
Sometimes the lead can be the hardest part of your story, but once you get it, the rest falls into place. This chapter reminded me of some important things to remember when I write a lead for a story, especially a feature. A lead should let readers know what your story is about, even if they read nothing else. A lead should also be relevant to the feature’s theme and simple to understand. There are, of course, different types of leads: summary, suspense, descriptive, anecdotal, and surprise. I normally use summary or descriptive for my leads. After reading this chapter, though, I noticed that I’ve used anecdotal leads, as well. I haven’t heard much about types of leads other than summary. The chapter also discusses the “big lump in the middle,” or the story. The story itself needs to be organized and flow. This is a big deal for me when I’m writing ANY piece. It doesn’t have to be in chronological order, but it does need some sort of flow. The book offers this advice: Keep related material together, let what you have written suggest what you write next, try to isolate material from one source in one place and, finally, digress often, but not for long. Features differ from news in a lot of ways, and creativity is one. It’s much harder to be creative in a news piece, but features allow us the privilege to really set the scene and make a story interesting, so an interesting lead and story structure is essential.
Welcome to MCJ 301 Feature Writing. I am excited to be teaching this class, and I hope you are happy to be part of it. We will be exploring feature writing in this class. We’ll start on the first day with figuring out exactly what a feature story is — and how it differs from a “news story.” We’ll be discussing the writing process and how to interview and observe to paint a picture for readers. We will be reading other writers to learn from them, and you will have a chance to read each other’s work. You’ll learn in this class to report and write a feature story and how to submit it to magazines, newspapers or websites for publication.
On this blog, you will be posting your reactions to the readings we do in class. You’ll use this space to ask questions — and get answers from me.
Let’s get started!